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A SCOTS travel firm set up to organise stag parties is sending health tourists to the Third World for cheap, fast surgery they cannot get in the UK.

Globe Health Tours – which usually provides entertainment for stag weekends – has already sent 30 patients to hospitals in India, where private surgery is a fraction of the price charged by UK clinics.

Patients, who combine surgery with an exotic holiday, travel for dental implants, hip and knee replacements and cosmetic surgery at hospitals in Dehli, Mumbai, Kerala, Goa, Bangalore and Ghana.

NHS waiting lists for some procedures are still up to six months and private clinics in the UK charge pay-as-you-go patients up to £10,000 for hip or knee replacements. But those prepared to travel to India can have the same operations for less than £3,500

The level of Indian healthcare is quite good among developing countries (as % of GDP spending, healthcare spending is 6%; for developed world the ratios is 10-15%). Only Cuba may have better standards of healthcare. Drug prices and availability are amongst the cheapest in the world. And despite recent Ayurvedic claims as the miracle-cure-all; fact is life expectancy in India is now 65 years, up from 32 years during Ayurvedic years (till 1930s). Many diseases like leprosy and polio are on the verge of becoming history. However, more than 70% of healthcare spending is not funded by the government or insurance agencies; the reverse applies for most developed economies (NHS in UK almost funds all of healthcare expense in UK). Also drug prices and prices for healthcare services in India have been increasing at a rate much faster than CPI inflation.

And that is why medical tourism is a difficult issue. As happens in laissez faire systems, it means that the best care would go to those who are willing to pay most: in this case, people from developed worlds; rather than the native population (70% of which probably live in villages). Of course, number of such medical tourists are relatively insignificant, but given India’s size, the number of high end resources are also far and few. There is another dimension: medical tourism is rarely used in cases of critical diseases or for situations where people in developed economies can claim for insurance; so any short term stress on local resources is only likely in not-so-acute areas like cosmetics, minor surgeries, sex changes etc. But will in the long term brightest medical students decide to specialize in these areas given the attractive prospects? Or will some mechanism come in place to use proceeds from medical tourism to subsidize care for the poor masses?

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